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Part II: An Interview with Charles Ajalat on Orthodox Unity in America

by Kevin Allen

KA: This question, I don’t know, may sound a little controversial, but let me ask it. Frankly, Charles how much do you think financial support coming from North America has to do with all of this continuing control?

CA: I don’t think for the most part it’s an issue of money. I think a lot of the mother churches think their position, either in world Orthodoxy or in their region of the world, for example the Middle East, will be diminished, and it will hurt Orthodox Christians in that part of the world or in the world overall. I believe, however, that the truth is the opposite: that all of Orthodoxy will be strengthened as the North American Church becomes stronger and more unified.

KA: This idea that Orthodoxy in North America is a diaspora was rejected by the Orthodox bishops of SCOBA at Ligonier in 1994, wasn’t it?

CA: Yes. One of the most beautiful moments I remember is when, God rest his soul, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos stood up in Ligonier and exclaimed, “We are not a diaspora. Let’s declare ourselves to be an Episcopal Assembly.” He was telling the truth about not being a diaspora, even though that was a controversial thing to say because of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s claim about the diaspora, and he was telling the truth that in fact, SCOBA should be an “Episcopal Assembly,” a term that was used by the mother churches in the 1990 and 1993 pre- conciliar conferences preparing for an Ecumenical Council.

KA: Did all the bishops present at Ligonier sign the statements on missions and evangelism and unity? And tell us what happened after the meeting.

CA: Well, the bishops did sign the two statements on missions and evangelism and unity and those statements, for anyone who reads them, should be non-controversial. They are beautiful statements regarding the purpose and mission of the church.

Those statements together with the signatures of the bishops can be seen or obtained by getting the booklet “A New Era Begins,” which also contains other documents regarding administrative unity, including the article by Archbishop Paul of Finland that I mentioned and the pre-conciliar documents. Perhaps you could cross-reference these on your website.

As I understand it, the answer to the second part of your question, is that after the meeting, the Ecumenical Patriarch put pressure on the bishops under his jurisdiction to withdraw their signatures from the documents, and that was supposedly done. And many believe that the resignation of Archbishop Iakovos was also a result of Ligonier.

KA: Has there been any other formal convocation of the Conference of Bishops with a specific purpose of moving towards unity since 1994?

CA: Unfortunately, no. There have been two additional conferences of bishops in the intervening 13-year period, but they have not discussed the critical issue of administrative unity. In fact the jurisdictions opposed to moving quickly towards such unity insist that even the word unity not be mentioned in their statements.

KA: Well, which jurisdictions in your opinion have spoken and speak openly in favor of or support of a North American Orthodox church and which emphasize obstacles?

CA: Well I think the OCA, the Orthodox Church in America, and the self-ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese are among the primary proponents, although there are other proponents as well. And what we need to do is have all of them speak up even more.

Because Ligonier, the first conference of bishops, is such a historical turning point for the Orthodox Church on this continent, I would encourage your listeners to get and view a copy of the exciting video produced regarding the Ligonier meeting, where you will see practically all of the bishops advocating such a Church. It is also called, “A New Era Begins.”

As to the second part of your question, I’m not sure that any jurisdiction would publicly oppose unity, although in private even a very key current SCOBA hierarch claims such administrative unity is not needed or possible now. I think often the obstacles to administrative unity are more subtle than outright rejecting the idea. Hierarchs opposing unity don’t allow frank discussions aimed at achieving unity, or they argue for a delay, that people aren’t ready or don’t want it. Or argue that we’re already one church, we don’t need administrative unity since we can receive communion in each other’s church and so forth.

KA: Okay, I hate to put you on the spot, but you told me off air that the Ecumenical Patriarch, the current one, when he was a Metropolitan, said that there’s no support for Orthodox unity in the U.S. Isn’t it accurate to say that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and those subordinate to it in North America are not advocates of administrative Orthodox unity in practice, at least at this time? And do you think the Ecumenical Patriarch’s assessment of a lack of grassroots support is correct?

CA: Well, what I told you off air was that when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was Metropolitan, way back in 1991, he said to me in Canberra, Australia that he did not believe the people in North America wanted administrative unity here as much as I did. I told him at the time that I thought there were many more than he suspected, and I think that number has increased significantly since then. I don’t know what his position is today. It may be the same, it may not. On the other hand, I think that in part he’s right. In other words many Orthodox Christians are only concerned about what happens in their own parish and don’t even know about their brother and sister Orthodox in other jurisdictions. So there’s much work to be done. Hopefully the hierarchs will encourage such work and encourage direct discussions regarding how to achieve this administrative unity. But, as I’ve indicated, not everyone approaches the issue that way.

KA: Well, I know you want to be politically correct and everything, but has the Ecumenical Patriarch in your opinion done anything structurally that would hinder or contravene any such future administrative unity in America?

CA: I’m not sure what you may be referring to. I can think of two things that are not helpful to having a future single administrative structure. One is when the Ecumenical Patriarchate changed the relationship of their bishops in North America and made them Metropolitan bishops rather than non- Metropolitan, strengthening administrative control rather than going in the opposite direction as other mother churches have done. But hopefully it won’t ultimately hinder future administrative unity. You’re probably also thinking about the Ecumenical Patriarchate having removed from the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese the country of Canada, whereas the Antiochians and the OCA, among others, include Canada. Again, that’s not helpful, but I think step-by-step implementations in resolving each problem can be done and it shouldn’t prevent anything.

KA: Now I say this with absolutely no disrespect meant at all. But the Ecumenical Patriarchate in current Istanbul, Turkey has what, perhaps 3,000 Orthodox left there?

CA: I think the number I’ve heard is about 2,000, maybe less.

KA: Well, without the authority over churches in this so-called “diaspora,” wouldn’t this ancient patriarchal see and others like it have less clout?

CA: We need together to find a constructive role for the Ecumenical Patriarchate while simultaneously strengthening and making administratively independent a unified church here. The Orthodox Church, precisely because it is a family of churches, does need a point of reference, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate can provide that.

We’re a family of churches that support each other and are one. The local church is the fullness of the faith. The national Orthodox Church is the fullness of the faith, and the international Orthodox Church is the fullness of the faith. In our ecclesiology 1+1+1=1, each level and the overall Church are the fullness of the faith. In Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, 1+1+1=3, the international church is made up of its components; each level is not a whole.

Now in that context we have to understand that we’re part of the world-wide Orthodox Church and that we want simultaneously to support and have a vision for the Church throughout the world, even as we progress, God willing, toward an administratively unified North American Church.

KA: The famous canonist Alexander Bogolopev has said: “In the past the founding of a new church occurred mostly without the consent of the mother church. Canonical relations were usually broken off and sometimes the new church was even excommunicated. Later, however, there was no alternative for the mother church but to recognize the independence of the separated church.” Could you comment?

CA: Well, some say, as you suggest, that there are two routes to administrative unity, evolution, evolving toward a unified administrative structure here, and revolution, just declaring autocephaly. I think that the answer is probably somewhere in between and goes more to the evolution kind of route. I think directly and frankly discussing the issues and seeing the benefit of administrative unity here for all on both sides of the Atlantic is what needs to happen.

You know the problem is people are even refusing at the hierarchical level to discuss it. That’s what unfortunately makes people say let’s have revolution, and I don’t think that’s good.

KA: Well, I don’t mean to discuss mutiny, but again, we’re having a hypothetical, academic discussion here, so hopefully we understand all the issues. Is there anything legally, according to U.S. federal law, that would hinder an American Orthodox jurisdiction from declaring itself autocephalous? I mean as far as I can see the only leverage the mother church would have would be lack of recognition or excommunication. And, I’m not minimizing the importance of these but other than that wouldn’t life go on as usual? I mean we’ve heard eventually the mother church has to recognize the independence of a separated church.

CA: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that, Kevin. Let me say first, as Christians we want the unity of the church at all levels. Christ said, “That they may be one Father, even as we are one.” So better routes than causing division, even for a historically short period, must be achieved. But if, as you say, it is only hypothetical and you are asking me as a lawyer, the only secular legal block that I can think of in North America comes with the issue of control of the real property and assets of individual churches, but ultimately if that’s planned it’s generally not an obstacle that can’t be overcome.

But the right way, I want to emphasize, is not to be thinking about revolution, but to get all to recognize the reality and the benefits of an administratively unified North American Church. And most importantly, Kevin, to recognize that such a church is inevitable and it should be planned together in unity, not in disharmony. We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand. We’ve got to deal with the issue.

KA: And I don’t disagree, by the way, personally that this is the right way to go. I just would state for the record that as Americans we tend to be a little bit more impatient.

CA: Well, I think it’s important that the mother churches understand that, because there are more and more people unfortunately who are saying that, which puts pressure on their hierarchs.

KA: The first four Ecumenical Councils not only recognized in principle the Church consisting of several administratively independent local churches as opposed, as you pointed out to the Roman Catholic model, but it also established and validated new local churches whose number would never be and has never been limited. Right?

CA: If you look at the history of the Church, originally as the Church grew there were four centers of administrative authority, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem: The first three because they were centers of the secular world, and the fourth because it was the Holy City. And then when Constantine created Constantinople in the Fourth Century, Constantinople took its place after Rome in what are referred to as the dyptichs, the order in which you commemorate the heads of the churches of the Orthodox Churches. When Rome left the rest of the church, Constantinople became the “first among equals.” And certainly Orthodox tradition has recognized the creation of administratively independent churches (even during the period of when Rome was part of the Church) such as Georgia, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, et cetera, not to mention the autonomous Japanese and Finnish churches as examples.

KA: Is the problem a complicated canon law issue, where there is no clear guidance on how to establish a new local church?

CA: I think the interpretation of the canons wouldn’t be so complicated if it weren’t for the cultural and political aspects. On the issue of the canons, however, the mother churches have not come to agreement as to whether autocephaly (full independence) or autonomy (semi-independence), can be declared by the mother church responsible for the daughter church or whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate and/or all the other churches must also agree.

But one thing that is very much needed in world Orthodoxy is the idea that Metropolitan PHILIP has put forward, namely that the Orthodox should have a standing commission of all the Orthodox Churches, perhaps in Geneva, I would even say perhaps in New York, where the Orthodox can be communicating together regarding everyday issues and being a witness to the cultures around them.

KA: Well, I’m just a lay person hearing this and working through this in my own thought process, but it doesn’t seem highly likely to me that the mother churches or the Ecumenical Patriarchate would grant autocephaly voluntarily, which has rarely happened. Do you disagree with that assessment?

CA: Well, that’s a complex question. You know, as I think about it Kevin, the OCA is an autocephalous church. That means they could issue a tomos (declaration) of autocephaly to all the Orthodox Churches in North America who wanted to accept it. So that could be one way. I mean Moscow granted autocephaly to them. You may be right, although I’d like to believe that all the bishops of the mother churches want what’s best for the entire Church. Sure the interests of each church are not the same and there are cultural and political and other problems, but I think the real need is for Orthodox hierarchs here, together with their counterparts abroad, to directly discuss the issues and create structures that benefit all.

And, equally importantly, I think that the laity in all jurisdictions must stand up and keep giving this message to their hierarchs and simultaneously work together on the local and diocesan level, giving practical meaning to the coming administrative unity.

I think the best route might be not to be an autocephalous church immediately but, as part of those discussions, to get those who are willing to work toward administrative unity to start integrating their departments of religious education and youth ministry and so forth and having a common voice in Washington, DC, and having even a joint congress of the laity and the clergy of their jurisdictions.

If you have this unity in practice at the administrative levels of the Church, it would make it much easier to some day have an autocephalous Church because the faithful who have not understood this situation as well will have become educated to the oneness of the Church.

KA: Who would lead an administratively unified Church and what would happen to all the other archbishops and bishops that already exist?

CA: Well, nothing would happen to them in terms of their being archbishops or bishops. As to leadership, the new Church would establish rules as to how the primate is elected. For example, in the OCA, the clergy and laity vote and if one candidate on the first ballet gets two-thirds of the vote, that person is the primate of that autocephalous church. If no one gets two-thirds, then the Holy Synod of the OCA elects. Under the Romanian route, the laity and clergy elect. And in many, if not most Synods, the members of the Synod elect. You could have all kinds of mechanisms. What is most critical is to have a synod with binding authority, perhaps first an interim synod with a rotating presidency retaining each jurisdiction’s existing governance and relationship to its mother church, and ultimately a unified administrative structure with its own rules for such elections.

KA: You hear it said, “Be patient. We now are having much more pan-Orthodox activity at the clergy and lay level, just wait until this process matures, and unity will come naturally.” Do you agree or disagree with that?

CA: I disagree for the most part. I think there’s some truth in it but you know Kevin, as I indicated before, I think administrative unity must come both from below, from the people, and from above, from the hierarchs, simultaneously. The two feed on each other. As to timing, of course, this is up to God but He does work through us. The Church has been on this Continent for over 200 years and as a fully organized set of jurisdictions over 100 years. And my experience with any kind of a complex problem is that advocating delay is often a way of trying to kill an idea.

As Metropolitan PHILIP has said, Orthodox administrative unity in North America is inevitable. So, as I said before, rather than putting one’s head in the sand on the issue, as it seems some of the churches are doing, they should be actively discussing with the North American Orthodox jurisdictions how to achieve the benefits the mother churches and the daughter churches both want.

Sure the problems aren’t easy, and compromise perhaps may have to occur on all sides, but it certainly is not impossible. The things that are impossible with men, we know are possible with God. And it seems clear, to me at least, that God wants the unity of His people and wants His Church administratively unified here to transform the culture around it even as we attempt to have God transform our own lives, through Jesus Christ.

My concern Kevin is, and I think the concern of many is, that all of this delay of the hierarchs, and even some clergy and laity, not recognizing the historic inevitability of this administratively unified Church here, are condemning many Orthodox Christians to becoming heterodox or atheists or agnostics, those who would leave the Church when they might not otherwise do so if they could see the Church in its fullness and historical reality, something that the lack of administrative unity obscures.

Now I want to be clear, Orthodox unity, Kevin, is not a panacea for all of our problems. But I think it is an important additional obstacle. I think it’s an obstacle not only for people in the Church who will be leaving it, but for people who are not in the Church who can’t see the Church and would like to come to it. And I think all of this is something that all of us, including the hierarchs, will have to answer to God for, just as we will have to answer to Him as to why we hid this pearl of great price.

KA: I’ve heard it said that the real problem with unity on the North American continent is not so much with the mother churches, but with North American hierarchs: if they really wanted to make unity happen, they could do it.

CA: I think that the problem is with both hierarchs here and abroad. And the ones I have the most difficulty understanding are hierarchs here who don’t support bold new initiatives.

KA: What can we as North American Orthodox faithful do to impact this somewhat depressing current situation?

CA: Well, Kevin, the first thing is not to get depressed, but to pray. I believe very strongly the Scriptures teach that the fervent prayer of righteous people availeth much. God will accomplish North American administrative unity. It’s inevitable, so let’s not get depressed. Let’s pray.

And the second thing is to get personally active, to raise orally at every possible moment, in every possible forum, all of us, the need for us to both work together and to be administratively one Church. And we can do that focusing on North America while at the same time being proud of our roots, and helping our mother churches and the Orthodox Church worldwide.

I don’t know, perhaps someone should organize an Internet campaign and get tens of thousands of signatures asking our hierarchs here and abroad to implement Orthodox unity now. This would certainly answer, Kevin, the question of whether North American Orthodox faithful want such unity.

But third, in addition to praying, in addition to being active at every possible moment, we need to put Orthodox unity in our own lives into action. We need to get to know Orthodox Christians from other jurisdictions. And with respect to our parish, we need to have our parish have a relationship with sister parishes in other jurisdictions and get to know them.

And, thank God, all of the faithful can support the snowball we’ve gotten rolling of all these pan- Orthodox ministries, things like International Orthodox Christian Charities and Orthodox Christian Mission Center, and Project Mexico, and Conciliar Press, Ancient Faith Radio, and Orthodox Christian Network, and Orthodox Christian Fellowship, etc., etc. These are all wonderful activities. We need to have more of them. We are one Church. Let’s proclaim that to the world. As Metropolitan PHILIP said in that video that I hope your listeners will view:

“The future is ours. The future is that of our children and our grandchildren, and the Orthodox Church is perhaps not as vibrant anywhere else in the world.”

Let’s proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the faith existing in His Church.

KA: Thank you very much for being so frank and forthright.

CA: It seems to me that often we haven’t been as frank as we should be. You’ve asked some pretty piercing questions and I think maybe we are all entitled to at least be debating the answers.

Courtesy of the

April 2008 issue of The Word magazine.

Return to The Word article listing.